Found: A Parrot-Headed, Big-Fanged, Porcupine Dinosaur. Really.

A hodge-podge fossil that was ignored for decades shows how creative —and even whimsical — evolution can be

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Todd Marshall

The new dinosaur dwarf Pegomastax from South Africa.

Nature does pretty and nature does ugly. And sometimes it does really, really ugly. Never was that truer than 200 million years ago when the Pegomastax africanus was walking — or scurrying — the Earth. The critter was a whole new kind of homely, but judging by a paper just published simultaneously in the online journal Zookeys and on the National Geographic Society website, it was a whole new kind of cool too. The little cat-sized beast is a vivid example of how evolution can sometimes assemble the most unlikely body types out of what amounts to off-the-shelf parts — and make them work improbably well together.

Before the new paper was released, the Pegomastax species had never been named or even fully described, but that doesn’t mean that the discovery of its remains is remotely new.  The first specimen of the animal was found in a rock outcropping in Africa in the 1960s. It was dug out and shipped to the U.S., where it spend the better part of the past five decades in the paleontology collection at Harvard University. The fossil seemed like nothing special — the remains of just one more small, scurrying herbivore that inhabited a world in which the thundering allosaurs and Tyrranosaurs  were the true stars. It wasn’t until last year that Paul Sereno, a professor of paleontology at the University of Chicago and National Geographic explorer in residence at Harvard, got a look at the fossil, and realized he had something unusual in his hands.

(More: Second Gunman in the Death of the Dinosaurs?)

The animal had a head like a vulture and a beak like a parrot, with tall, sharp teeth near the back of its mouth. The beak was apparently designed for plucking fruit and the teeth for slicing and tearing  leaves and other plant matter. Wear patterns on both the top and bottom teeth indicate that they scraped against each other as the jaw opened and closed, which may or may not have been pleasant for the Pegomastax —whose name, appropriately, means “thick jaw” — but it did keep the teeth freshly sharpened at all times. This kind of jaw design is not uncommon  for small herbivorous dinosaurs, but the Pegomastax  had one feature that set it apart from most of the others: a pair of stabbing canine teeth in front of the slicing teeth — standard equipment for a meat-eater sure, but definitely not for a birdlike plant-eater.

Watch the Making of Heterodontosaurus Flesh Model

“It would take ornithischian dinosaurs millions of years—not until the Early Cretaceous around 130 million years ago—to develop scissors like self-sharpening dentitions as sophisticated as [these],” Sereno wrote in an e-mail to Time. “And none ever re-evolved such fangs! I would suggest, modestly, that Pegomastax would make a good Halloween mask.” But apart from simply making it the scariest beast on the block, what was a bird-headed dinosaur doing with such teeth?

A very small handful of similar fossils have tuned up with the same mix of both carnivorous and herbivorous teeth — enough that the genus has been given a name: Hederodontosaurus, which means, straightforwardly enough, different-toothed lizard. Paleontologists have speculated that the animals within the genus perhaps supplemented their vegetable diet with insects or even larger bits of meat, but in the case of the Harvard specimen at least, Sereno disagrees. Chips and scrapes in the enamel layer of the teeth suggests they were used not for eating but for biting when fighting, which would have been necessary both in competing for mating opportunities with other members of the species and in battling predators.

(More: Just Big-Boned? Dinosaurs Skinnier Than Once Thought, Scientists Say)

One thing that did not survive the long-ago fossilization process but was likely a part of the living Pegomastax was a covering of bristles, very much like those of a porcupine. A recent fossil unearthed in China bears a close enough similarity to the Harvard specimen that it is thought to be the same species or at least closely related. Those bones were found buried deeply in lake sediment and that provided enough protection that the bristle coat remained.

“Some have said [the bristles] are related to feathers, but I do not believe this,” Sereno wrote. “They do not branch or split, which is a key feature of feathers.  Other ornthischians have scales, and once you have feathers over your body, you cannot at the same time have scales. Bristles don’t look to be good insulators; rather they made the animal look bigger than it was and may have been brightly colored.”

Despite its apparent toughness, the Pegomastax and its larger genus were not built for survival. The most advanced Heterdontosaurs vanished about 150 million years ago, Sereno says, just as the Jurassic period was ending. “Perhaps they were too specialized for their own good,” he speculates. “Changing climate and plant life may have done them in.” And in the case of these animals, dead really does mean dead. Many species that survived up to the great dinosaur die-off 65 million years ago were at least able to push their genes across the extinction boundary, where they were partly subsumed into the genome of modern birds. Not the Heterodontosaurs. The parrot’s beak and the porcupine’s quills may resemble those of the old Pegomastax, but they were in fact tricks evolution had to learn all over again. The progenitor animal — as clever as it was ugly — is gone forever.

(More: Rewriting the Book on Dinosaurs)

90 comments
bpai99
bpai99

Remember - evolution is a lie from the pit of hell (GOP).

BeefCakeage
BeefCakeage

 "HMMM Great article. The new dinosaur looks weird that's interesting!" But instead we get a bunch of babbling comments about evolution and religion. Stop it. Everyone is intitled to their own opinion and no one can tell you that your opinion is bad. I would encourage everyone to at least look at the other side with an open mind before making a decision, but commenting on an article about a weird looking dinosaur is not the time or place for a philosophical argument. Good article. Well written. Author did a great job. Good day to you all. 

Brandt Hardin
Brandt Hardin

Here in Tennessee, we’re all too glad to just have our thumbs. Don’t think for a second this will end up in Southern Classrooms of the unprogressive. Christian ideology teaches us to deny, deny, deny as teachers are now allowed to put Creationism into debate against hard facts like this new discovery. Read more about the pulpit in the classroom with some evolutionary artwork on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot...

Mike7
Mike7

I wonder if all black holes spin the same direction? Is so, then why?

 

If you found two more more black holes spinning in CW and CCW rotations, does this suggest that the universe is a bubble and has a northern and southern hemisphere?

Ivan
Ivan

Why so much emphasis on the word 'ugly'???? Why not say unique instead???? Agreed, that this one is not the most attractive dino around..but then one neednt use the word ugly repeatedly to describe it...shows lack of sensitivity and imagination...please refresh

Frieda W Landau
Frieda W Landau

First off, I'm an atheist.  Have been since I was 11 and went looking for god and couldn't find him.  But, I see no problem in believing that evolution, et al is god's way of creation if it brings someone comfort.  It's the fanatics on both sides that cause the problems.

Lars Porsena
Lars Porsena

God never said dinosaurs don't exist he just didn't mention them because its unimportant for our purpose of existance. It was always known beasts roamed the land humanity has been around for at least few million years in my own belief.

garrett nicholas
garrett nicholas

oh and dinosours probably werent mentioned but were real in the time of creation

garrett nicholas
garrett nicholas

first of all it was 2 loafs of bread and 5 fish

second who cares about the way all of you are talking, you all dont belive, thtas ok. im not going to force you to. some do, and thats because they are new to it so if you are going to say religon is stupid thats ok im not complaining. thats the way us christans are supposed to be, and some dont . so i understand you all think its wierd that people belive in god, thats ok i used to be like you guys until i was going to church( baptist serveces are smaller than morman and cathlic and all the others) i became a better perso. i wasnt cusing, or getting into trouble that much, but i understand if you guys dont belive it thats ok.

garrett nicholas
garrett nicholas

oh and dinisours probably did exist it just dosent mention them during creation

garrett nicholas
garrett nicholas

first of all it was 2 loafs of bread and 5 fish

second who cares about the way all of you are talking, you all dont belive, thtas ok. im not going to force you to. some do, and thats because they are new to it so if you are going to say religon is stupid thats ok im not complaining. thats the way us christans are supposed to be, and some dont . so i understand you all think its wierd that people belive in god, thats ok i used to be like you guys until i was going to church( baptist serveces are smaller than morman and cathlic and all the others) i became a better perso. i wasnt cusing, or getting into trouble that much, but i understand if you guys dont belive it thats ok.

TYRANNASAUR
TYRANNASAUR

When you're that small and dodging 40 foot dinos.......I'd want quills and anything else I could get to protect my cute little body.

TYRANNASAUR
TYRANNASAUR

This doesn't necessary mean because it had fangs it was a meat eater.....maybe there were seed pods or some tough fruit with thick skins that these little guys lived on....maybe they had to puncture the skin to crack it open and get at the juice/meat of this fruit...

pozitive_thinking
pozitive_thinking

Can you imagine spending your days constantly refreshing news sites looking for new science articles so that you can skip all the words and post something clever about the Bible?  I would probably kill myself if that was my life.

celH1
celH1

We still have ugly in nature.. But what a beautiful world it is~! 

Even with the ugly nature is amazing...

Vinnie Vegas
Vinnie Vegas

Abraham and Moses rode these things into battle against the Pharaoh.  True story.  

Wesley Walsh
Wesley Walsh

Stopped reading at 200 million years old.  This article is blasphemous and against emperor jesus.  BRB, going to rail my 9 year old wife.   Love, prophet mohammed. 

Brad Foley
Brad Foley

"Many species that survived up to the great dinosaur die-off 65 million years ago were at least able to push their genes across the extinction boundary, where they were partly subsumed into the genome of modern birds." This is a strange formulation to say the least. It sounds like a bunch of dinosaurs had an orgy with birds after the asteroid, and produced hybrids. Better to say, "the only dinosaurs that survived the great extinction were the single lineage of birds."

Sad_Dad
Sad_Dad

This species is not dead ... she's my mother-in-law.

cpc65
cpc65

Give it a prehensile monkey tail and chameleon skin and I'll buy one!

Kent Wilson
Kent Wilson

anyone else reading this headline to the tune of Flying Purple People Eaters

kendallpeak
kendallpeak

I have discovered a ten thousand year civilization of mobile intelligent space traveling trees. I have deduced this fact from what to the untrained mind looks like a small part of an old pine cone, but since the modern mind has great FAITH in the intellectual elite such as myself........

daddieo11
daddieo11

Doesn't anyone proofread these articles before they are published? Come on with the typos already!

"where it spend the better part of the past five decades"

"similar fossils have tuned up with the same mix of both carnivorous and herbivorous teeth"

JoeGr
JoeGr

Quite interesting...but three different spellings of heterodontosaurus in one short article?? I know it's not in the spellcheck software, but somebody should have caught that.

snapnturtle
snapnturtle

"Really, really ugly," - how rude. 

It is cuter than most homo sapiens, myself included.

alfredo_tomato
alfredo_tomato

A Kong chew toy, perch, and water dish were found along with the fossil. 

Peter Charette
Peter Charette

Great article! Now please - if you like science, as I do, good. But please don't use that as an excuse to bash on the Bible / Christianity / Religion / etc. There is a place for BOTH science AND religion. They both live comfortably side-by-side in my world. Let's keep this thread nice, folks!

53underscore3
53underscore3

I'm tired of it, myself. For some reason, I manage to believe in God and the reality of our planet's history. 

They keep telling me that I can't be one or the other, but I just ignore them.

Give me paleontology any day, its fascinating!

JMLipoff
JMLipoff

 S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G. Work on it!

kendallpeak
kendallpeak

Wouldn't Stephen Hawking look hilarious on top of one of these at full gallop running across the prairie? Yee Ha!!

Lars Porsena
Lars Porsena

with only difference that aisha used to kill people like you for saying these things. its not like isaac who married 3 yr old rebecca read sanhedrin 55b. wasn't jesus mother 12 when she married 90 yr old joseph? until a 100 years ago it was normal in usa. except 1400 years ago women were warriors too and aisha killed bigger people than you. back then you savages thought water was for poor people. its easy talking nonsense in your mountain dwelling sheepshagging dragonland illusion

allanhowls
allanhowls

Thankfully, science is not reliant on the uninformed and willfully ignorant who don't understand what most of us learned in school.  But please continue to mock that which eludes you.

Max
Max

There is no room in Religion for Science, just ask Galileo.  And you are going to hell...Well, only purgatory since we are being nice.  

sumday
sumday

thanks- I also believe there is little if any contradiction bt science and the bible.  The bible tells what was done and science simply tells how it was done.

Kyler Phoenix
Kyler Phoenix

Spelling? He has a lot more to work on than spelling. 

kendallpeak
kendallpeak

You may be surprised at what this willfully ignorant  rube learned in school. Actually, most of the dinosaurs they taught me about have gone the way of the brontosaurus, gone extinct millions of years ago, gone extinct a second time when the "facts" changed again.

Max
Max

And Toy's are us just tells how Santa gets all the toys he hands out on x-mas day. 

MichiganRefugee
MichiganRefugee

 I find little reason to argue about religion, either.  However the Bible DOES say--pharaphrasing--that a woman turned to salt because she looked longingly at the home she was fleeing,  that the "sun stood still" in the sky (so the earth stopped rotating?), 

that in ancient times  an attacking army was able to blow horns loud

enough to destroy formidable walls protecting Jericho,  that Jesus fed thousands of people with 7 fish, that he rose from the dead, that a resurrected Jesus repeatedly appeared to his disciples and then disappeared, that doubting Thomas stuck his fingers into the wounds of Jesus,  that 30 days later Jesus floated away into the heavens.....we can go on and on.     

Yes,I agree there  is "little contradiction bt science and the bible" if you read these events as allegorical stories.  If they are read as descriptions of actual events, then yes there are contradictions.

MicheleIsHot
MicheleIsHot

Sure  it does - someone called jesus rose from the dead?  Impossible!

Kyler Phoenix
Kyler Phoenix

Did you skip grammar to get learnt about them dinosaurs?

David Carroll
David Carroll

 The salt lick thing! I bet she turned back to her old slutty ways and men just used her for sex kind of like deer use salt licks. After they get what they need, they give it no more thought. I love idioms!

The sun stood still? I bet someone made that up for dramatic effect.

The horns were just a distraction to cover the noise of the sappers that were slowly undermining the integrity of the walls.

Feeding thousands with a couple fish and a loaf of bread? Dude! Did you never read the story, Stone Soup? The same story in a different setting! Either that or it was pot luck.

A resurrected Jesus! Zombies are real guy. Just you wait until the Zombie Apocolypse! You'll see.

The part about him floating up into the sky though, is just total B.S.

MicheleIsHot
MicheleIsHot

Show me one shred of evidence – not even proof – of the existence of your creator. You have nothing, but a book written a couple of thousand years ago, and have been brainwashed by your parents and your priest that it is true.

MicheleIsHot
MicheleIsHot

It’s true, but you can’t prove it? That’s called idiocy.

Syrinx
Syrinx

@facebook-1309748626:disqus Randy, a being with the wisdom and intellect to do all those things WOULDN'T have a son, and wouldn't have to come to earth to act as a primitive blood sacrifice in order to create a loophole in some absurd system of sin debt that is obviously the product of inferior human minds. Any true God would be far above and beyond the trainwreck that is the Bible, Christianity and their associated absurdities (that goes for Islam and other "revealed" religions with "personal" gods).

Sorry but science and The Bible are simply NOT compatible. Science, history and archaeology have pretty much destroyed that book and its god, clearly demonstrating their human origins in ancient Sumerian mythology.

That doesn't rule out more rational conceptions of a God/Creator, of course...

Max
Max

No, it is all true...but we can't prove any of it.  You either believe or burn.  What a happy co-existence. 

allanhowls
allanhowls

Randy, but apparently he's only been able to swing that trick one time, and the regrowth of amputated limbs still seems to elude him.

Randy McWilson
Randy McWilson

So, let's see, A Creator with the power to establish natural law, create the Universe from a singularity, arrange the hyper-complexity of DNA, is then somehow baffled about restoring physical life to Jesus.  Hmmm...nice try, Michele.